The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Big society or Big responsibility?

I think I’m a fairly intelligent person – so why am I having so much trouble understanding the ‘Big Society’ concept? Is it just the cynic in me? I’ve listened to the politicians, I’ve even been to the website (more on that in a future blog) – and where has it got me?

As far as I can see, the government would quite like me to use my spare time to go out and do some of the jobs that they used to pay people for in the days of BNM (Before No Money). According to the Prime Minister these two occurrences are merely a happy coincidence, nothing more. So the fact that they need volunteers to keep verges tidy, maintain schools etc., at just the time when the people who used to do these things are about to lose their jobs shouldn’t make people get all paranoid and conspiratorial about it. I also heard someone on the news this morning explaining how I should invite an elderly person round for dinner so that they don’t feel lonely, or doing their shopping for them . I’m not sure if I should also be handing out the books off my bookshelf to people, or even where to do it as the libraries are being closed down.

There are actually some important issues wrapped up in this Big Society package, but the stench of spin and sleight-of-hand destroys any opportunity to utilise the good and avoid the bad. Becoming more in touch with our local community and helping each other out is a noble cause, and is only to be encouraged. I like the thought of a community where everyone is pulling together to make everyone’s lives better and helping those who have problems.

But what am I supposed to do and when am I supposed to do it? I work 12 – 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. It might seem terribly selfish of me to want some time to myself and my family, but that is almost the message that seems to permeate the Big Society; if you don’t do something for others, regardless of your other commitments, you are a selfish bastard. Never mind that you do hours of unpaid overtime working to help others. Why aren’t you doing more? Do more with less (I might as well throw ‘we’re all in this together’ in here to complete the set of bland clichés trotted out over the last few months). I’m sure everyone else has their perfectly valid reasons for not being able to devote the time, energy and resources required to volunteer. Because it isn’t just a case of thinking ‘I’ve got a spare hour this week, I’ll go and help with something’ – volunteering takes commitment over a prolonged period of time; it takes training; it takes resources.

The part that worries me the most is when ‘volunteering’ becomes ‘responsibility’. Doing the shopping for old Mrs Smith down the road and popping in to check she is coping ok isn’t a problem, a simple act of volunteering which most of us would agree is a good, community-spirited thing to do. But if I am doing this for Mrs Smith and the local council is looking for services to cut, wouldn’t it be tempting to not have so many social services looking after Mrs Smith if I’m doing such a good job of it? So what happens then if I’m busy and can’t do my ‘volunteering’ bit? Does Mrs Smith get her shopping? Does anyone check to see that she is coping in her home? If something happens to her and I wasn’t there when I usually am, is it my fault? Not me guv! I was ‘volunteering’ – I didn’t sign up to take responsibility for anything.

The problem is, the Big Society harks back to a time that never actually existed – it can’t have. Yes, stronger communities existed in the past, but they did not have the systems in place which now exist; the no-win no-fee lawyers, the health and safety edicts, the consumer ideals upon which our society exists (apparently Mr. Cameron has stated that he will cut swathes through the criminal checks and health and safety laws to make the Big Society work; good luck explaining that to the lawyers when they come knocking the first time a child is injured or molested Mr. C).

The irony is that helping in these times of uncertainty and gloom could actually do us a lot of good, as individuals and as a nation. Cialdini’s negative-state-relief model suggests that helping people can help us to feel better about ourselves. But that doesn’t work when people feel used and manipulated. And this is the fundamental problem of the Big Society; it could actually do more harm than good if left in the hands of politicians to spin it for their own devices. Where we could gradually encourage people to build a stronger society, this bludgeoning monstrosity could lead to people becoming even more entrenched in their opposition to it.

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